Guidance for business: Preserving human rights while combating COVID-19

As health and government officials work relentlessly to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) around the world, businesses also must do their part. However, due to the dramatic measures needed to contain the pandemic, human rights are at risk as well.

After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March, it became clear that businesses must be part of the solution by protecting the health of their employees and customers, while also preventing spread of the illness to others. This includes following all public health directives despite the adverse effect on their profit margins, while assuring that individuals’ rights, dignity and privacy remain intact as much as possible.

This mandate must apply to small as well as large enterprises, although the consequences are often greater for the former. Policies should take into account these considerations:

Adopt a flexible approach to work location and hours

Businesses must be prepared to modify their operational policies on a timely basis, as what is known about the science and the public health implications of COVID-19 evolves and develops. Even in the absence of a governmental “stay-at-home” order, enterprises should permit employees to remote work in response to concerns about disease prevention. Employees, consultants, etc. who report possible exposure to the virus should be required to work in isolation for a full two weeks even if they show no signs of cough, fever or other symptoms.

Such policies include a waiver of any previous requirement for a healthcare provider’s note before an absence of that length is authorized. Employees who self-quarantine and cannot work remotely due to illness or other circumstances must be eligible for paid sick pay from the first day of their absence.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Businesses should communicate to employees and contractors openly and clearly. Policies on work conditions and time off, along with public health guidelines, should be updated and explained on a timely basis via emails, text messages and/or virtual staff meetings. Employees should be reminded them of safety measures and kept updated on actions taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace or at home. In all cases, it is necessary to make sure employees’ contact numbers and emergency details are up to date.

Use the workplace for education and intervention

The workplace is an ideal place and community for health education and intervention. Websites, conference calls, webinars, emails and/or text messages should be deployed to make sure employees and other stakeholders are aware of the seriousness of the pandemic and ways to reduce the spread of the virus. Remind employees to clean their hands with alcohol-based sanitisers that contain at least 60% alcohol, or use water and soap, for at least 20 seconds every time they go out, return to their home or office, or touch objects such as mobile phones. Face-touching should be discouraged. Provide employees with sanitisers, soap and disposable wipes to encourage good hygiene. Frequently touched objects and surfaces should be routinely disinfected. Employees who appear to have fever and/or respiratory symptoms (shortness of breath or cough) should be separated from other people as much as possible and referred for testing.

 

Prevent stigma and discrimination

Effective prevention requires contact tracing and quarantining of those who have been exposed to COVID-19. This means carriers’ identity must be known. To the extent possible, however, assure that personal information is kept confidential and that carriers are not stigmatized or discriminated against. Likewise, watch for any ill treatment of Asian individuals, due to their perceived association with the locus of the pandemic, China.

Likewise, employees and contractors should be made safe and protected from adverse consequences of proving personal information when needed, including undocumented immigrants.

Respect individual rights

While public health may dictate enforcement of rules such as closure of company gyms and quarantining of persons with symptoms, individual rights and personal privacy should be respected and maintained unless absolutely required otherwise. In those cases, a full explanation should be offered.

 Share practices and learnings

Part of the collective responsibility to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus is to be willing to share and collaborate with government agencies, healthcare providers/agencies and other businesses, whether in the same industry or throughout a supply chain.

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